What Muscles Does Kayaking Work? 6+ Muscles That Keep You Paddling Forward

Kayaking is more than just a leisurely paddle – it's a full-body workout that engages a wide range of muscles from head to toe. But which specific muscle groups benefit the most from this low-impact, high-intensity sport? We break down the primary muscles used in kayaking, from your core and upper body to your lower back and legs.
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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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Nessa Hopkins

ACA-Certified Kayaking Instructor

Vanessa is a certified kayaking instructor, has taught over 500 people how to kayak, and is a senior member of the American Canoe Association. By combining her deep understanding of the sport and a background in journalism, she offers a wealth of experience and expertise to our growing water sports community, promising to educate and inspire paddlers of all levels.

Kayaking is a full-body workout that engages multiple muscle groups, providing a low-impact yet effective way to improve your strength, endurance, and overall fitness. While it may seem like kayaking primarily works your arms and shoulders, the truth is that this water sport targets several major muscle groups throughout your body.

The main muscle groups worked during kayaking include:

  1. Back muscles (latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and erector spinae)
  2. Shoulder muscles (deltoids and rotator cuff)
  3. Arm muscles (biceps, triceps, and forearms)
  4. Chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor)
  5. Core muscles (rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis)
  6. Leg muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves)

By the end of this article, you’ll have a thorough understanding of what muscles does kayaking work? We will explore each of these muscle groups in detail, discussing their roles in kayaking and how they contribute to your overall performance on the water.

What Muscles Does Kayaking Work? 6 Muscle Groups Targeted By Kayaking

Handsome Caucasian man kayaker paddling on the river.

Asking what muscles does kayaking work is a very logical question, and most people are surprised by the answer – I know I was when I first researched the topic and discovered the muscles used.

From an outsider’s perspective, I can see why many are quick to label kayaking as an outdoor activity focused on leisure and relaxation, and wouldn’t consider kayaking a good workout.

You’re sitting the entire time – how hard can it be, right? 


A kayaking session can be anything from a leisurely paddle in a nearby lake to a full-blown sprint that leaves you exhausted and gasping for air. But while the paddling effort and overall kayaking workout intensity may vary, the impact it has on the paddler’s body – yes, the entire body – does not. 

There aren’t many outdoor activities that can target as many muscle groups as kayaking can. 

If you ever caught yourself thinking, “What muscles does kayaking work,” here’s a round-up of major muscle groups that are put to use whenever you hit the water in your kayak! 

The Role Of Back Muscles In Strong Paddling Motions 

When evaluating the muscles used in kayaking, arms aside, back muscles are easily one of the most talked-about muscle groups in the kayaking world. 

So, let’s start with your back then. 

back muscles of bodybuilder

The three primary muscles in your back that kayaking puts to work, and the drivers behind every kayak paddle stroke, are: 

Latissimus Dorsi

The largest muscles in your back, also known as lats. Good lat strength is key to transfer the energy from your lower body and into the paddling movement. When one arm rows and the other extends, only to contract inward, toward the body; those are your lats hard at work.

Rhomboid Muscles

Besides ensuring good kayaking posture, rhomboid muscles are in charge of pulling the shoulder blades toward the spine’s middle. This muscular movement occurs at the end of each stroke and is called scapular retraction

Trapezius Muscles

Most people are familiar with the upper trapezius, the so-called shrug muscles, but traps shoulder blades reach the middle and lower back regions. These muscles dictate neck and shoulder blade movements. Kayakers are known to overuse their upper traps, so try not to overlook your middle and lower trapezius. 

Bonus Tip:

An adequate kayaking seat with a supportive backrest is never a bad investment for an avid paddler. Proper posture and technique, combined with a quality seat, are paramount in keeping the back muscles healthy and pain-free at the end of each paddling session. 

An adequate kayaking seat with a supportive backrest is never a bad investment for an avid paddler. Proper posture and technique, combined with a quality seat, are paramount in keeping the back muscles healthy and pain-free at the end of each paddling session. 

What Muscles Does Kayaking Work In The Shoulder Area? 

Caucasian man kayaker paddling on the river in life jacket

Your shoulder muscles work hand in hand with your back and arm muscles; all three muscle groups are crucial for excellent kayaking performance. 

So, yes, kayaking does recruit the shoulder muscles – primarily the deltoids – while the four rotator cuff muscles take care of rotation and stabilize your shoulders and arms. 

However, the actual load distribution isn’t necessarily equal: 

When it come to parts of the shoulder muscles used in kayaking, the Posterior deltoids take on most of the work in a forward paddling motion, which could ultimately lead to the overdevelopment of the deltoid muscle’s rear head. This muscular imbalance puts kayakers at risk of a shoulder injury; shoulder joint wear or rotator cuff tears – teres major or teres minor,

You can combat this by balancing front and posterior deltoids through exercise focusing on the rotator cuff such as; a high cable row / face pull or power band rotations. Alternatively, practice maintaining the so-called “paddler’s box” – an imaginary rectangular formed by your arms, chest, and the paddle.

The Paddlers Box - How to Kayak - Paddle Education

Upper Arms, Forearms & Grip Muscles: Is Kayaking Good For Arms? 

A kayaker races down the whitewater of a river.

Paddling consists of a catch and pull action. As one arm pulls in, targeting the biceps on that side of the body, the other will respond with a countering forward extension that involves the triceps. 

That’s pretty much the definition of how antagonistic muscle pairs work

And as your biceps and triceps are doing their thing, the power generated by your back, arms, and core muscles is ultimately transfers to the paddle through your forearms and grip. 

The hands are your primary contact points with the paddle, with your grip strength being the cherry on top of the paddling motion. Everything else you do will depend on you having a proper grip on the paddle.

Your forearm muscles are engaged continuously in handling and maneuvering the paddle – including rotating, flexing, and extending – regardless of the paddling intensity.

Initial kayaking sessions make for a real endurance challenge, often accompanied by arm or upper body fatigue. It gets easier with time, though. 

Bonus Tip: 

A proper grip is vital, but if you’re paddling at a casual pace, relax your grip. Otherwise, you’re signing up for wrist injuries

Kayaking Works Your Chest Muscles 

One arm extends the paddle forward, while the other counteracts it by drawing the opposite end of the paddle inward. Rinse and repeat, and you have the paddling motion that propels your kayak. 

Forward Paddling Strokes - Kayaking Technique

It may not be as evident, but each kayak stroke puts significant pressure on your chest muscles. 

Have you ever done single-arm dumbbell bench presses? 

Paddling works the same muscles, but simultaneously and in the opposite fashion: 

Pectorals – the group of muscles connecting the front of your chest to the bones in your shoulders and upper arms – make up a good portion of your torso’s top half.

You already have your back muscles working in unison with your arms and shoulders; your chest muscles are bound to be included in the action, too. 

Core: Is Kayaking Good For Abs & Core Strength? 

Kayaker fighting the rapids of a river.

Beginners often assume that a paddler’s power comes from the arms. However, it’s the rotational force generated by your core muscles, via torso rotation, that drives the paddling motion. 

Wait, what does your core have to do with kayaking? 

Well, much more than you think. 

The engagement of core muscles – primarily abdominals and obliques – is crucial, even for the most basic forward kayak stroke: 

Rotation and counter-rotation of the upper body, maintaining balance, proper posture, and stabilizing both you and the kayak – it all starts in the core

Your upper body seems to do most of the work in kayaking, but you utilize your abs in more than one way throughout the entire paddling motion, start to finish. 

So, next time you are in the gym take a few minutes of time off your cardio workout, or skip that extra shoulder strength workout, and try and few core strength exercises – watch how it boasts your power out on the water

The Lower Body Dilemma: What About The Legs & Glutes? 

Kayak sculling technique

It can’t compete with full-on leg-focused activities, such as cycling or running – but yes, paddling works out your lower body. 

I’ve seen that look of utter confusion in beginners many times: 

Why do my legs hurt after paddling? Isn’t this supposed to be an upper-body workout?” 

Well, your legs work to stabilize the rest of your body. 

A good kayak stroke starts with your legs lodged firmly on the foot braces. And as your paddling technique improves, you’ll discover other ways to use your legs in kayaking, such as turning, rolling, and bracing. 

Also, why are the glutes the most underrated muscle group in kayaking? 

Although widely overlooked, gluteal muscles act as a point of contact between your core and the boat: 

Your legs initiate the stroke, and your core strength and torso rotation sees it through, but your glutes – and hips – are the connection point between the two. Lets just say the leg muscles are the key of the ‘power transfer’ and the start of ‘torque power’ chain.

Moreover, when it comes to safety, the all important ‘Hip snap’ plays a pivotal role in returning the boat to the upright position when performing a safety roll manoeuvre.

Don’t Forget That Your Heart Is A Muscle, Too 

Kayaker paddling at sunset

I already mentioned kayaking works your back muscles, abs, chest muscles, shoulders, forearms, biceps, triceps, legs, and glutes; that’s one pretty impressive list. 

Don’t forget to add the most important muscle in the body – your heart – to it, though.

Whether you’re kayaking leisurely, navigating through whitewater rapids, or sprinting, kayaking has proved itself as highly beneficial for cardiovascular health. 

Consistent motion – such as paddling – can bring your heart rate up fast, making kayaking one of the very few cardio-centric upper body exercises. You can burn approximately 400 to 500 calories per hour of kayaking.

Plus, if you have a lower-body injury or don’t enjoy excessive leg work, kayaking’s low-impact nature makes it possible to meet your daily recommended exercise goals

Summing It Up: What Muscles Does Kayaking Work? 

I’d say that the best answer to your question of what muscles does kayaking work would be – which muscle doesn’t kayak work? But being serious for a second, Kayaking is a sport that works every muscle in the entire body. 

As simple as the motions may look, with a proper kayaking technique, it can be highly demanding on the body. Back muscles, shoulders, chest, arms, core, even legs, and glutes; you’re going to feel these paddling sessions in muscles that you didn’t even know existed.  And your heart gets a pretty good kick out of it, too!

And did you know, an hour of kayaking can burn the same amount of calories as an hour of weight training (500 calories) – making kayaking a good workout and great gym alterative.

You might call it the lazy man’s exercise now – but wait until you grab a paddle and head out on the water. That’s when you learn how truly hardcore kayaking can be. 

But with that in mine, don’t let poor mobility, bad knees or lack of fitness stop you from taking up kayaking, it’s a wonderfully inclusive sport that can be enjoyed at varying levels of ability – its also a great way to built fitness, get outside, explore the countryside, meet new friends and enjoy time with family (especially if you have children)

Photo of author

Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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